A CEO of a large company once told me “It’s easy to be a good manager when things are going well.” There’s a fairly large nugget of wisdom in this. We praise people who are successful, laud their leadership skills and marvel at how they’ve brought out the best in their teams. However, we’re rarely privy to their moments of doubt, to the times when things weren’t going swimmingly, when it wasn’t so easy to captain a ship that was being tossed about on stormy seas. Being a good manager in times of tumult sucks, and it’s really hard. Ironically, when the brown stuff hits the fan, that’s when rising to the occasion matters most.
Try replacing the word “manager” with “thinker.” Think of yourself as a manager of your own thoughts. When things are going well, there’s clarity. There’s time for reflection and dialogue, and even creativity. When things get difficult, however, we tend to resort to knee-jerk reactions, to wishful thinking and narrow-mindedness. We throw around words like “rational” and “logical”, as if the mere mention of them implies that they’re actually being used. When it counts the most, when we stand to gain the most from being effective “managers”, we flake out.
My friends, there is a great deal of brown stuff in mid-flight at the moment. The world is screaming for a bit of rational thinking, for some level-headedness, and rather than stepping up as managers, we’re giving our notice and turning in our keys. If it was ever easy to be in charge of one’s thoughts (maybe it never was), it ain’t anymore. While I’d never presume to tell anyone what to think (kind of defeats the purpose, really), there are a few trusty guidelines on how to think:
- You don’t get to decide something is true (or false) just because you want it to be. This one is a crusty little pill to swallow, as it often means we have to give up something we like, something we’re comfortable with. It’s fine that there are different definitions of truth itself (so meta), but slapping it on as a label should occur only after careful scrutiny.
- You don’t get to declare someone else’s ideas as dumb or silly or wrong just because they’re “other”. Every single person on the planet is “other” (thanks, Sartre), and we are “other” to everyone else. You stick your fingers in your ears while others are talking, you miss out on a lot.
- Famous and popular do not equal smart…or useful…or right. This applies to ideas just as much as it does to celebrities or fads. Humans like stupid things sometimes. Big groups of humans like stupid things sometimes. Case in point: Tamagotchi. ‘Nuff said.
- Thinking well isn’t something you get to scratch off a to do list. There is no squishy philosophical bean bag chair into which you can wedge yourself for the rest of your life. Good thinking is like one of those posture-correcting, metal folding jobbies they use in band class. It’s uncomfortable, and it demands that you stay alert and squirming. But at least you know you’re sitting up properly.
- There is no winner in an argument. We need to stop thinking about crushing our opponents and start thinking about putting our minds together to figure stuff out. If you’re feeling competitive, play a round of Chubby Bunny with mini-marshmallows, or go bowling.
- If you’re wrong, admit you’re wrong. Contrary to popular opinion, the human mind is fallible (well, duh). There’s no shame in realizing that your idea isn’t going to work. Stubbornly clinging to an idea with more holes in it than Swiss cheese is guaranteed to make you look pretty foolish.
- Start teaching people to be better “managers” when they’re really small. Kids pee their pants more often than adults, and they have questionable taste in snack foods, but they’re not just cute little morons. Count the number of dorky plastic toys your kid has, double it, and that’s how many big ideas your kid has swimming around in their head at any given moment. They can handle them.
Okay, I’ll admit that there’s probably never a time when being this kind of manager is easy. Human lives are complex and often difficult. That’s what we get for climbing out of the ooze and becoming sentient. There are, however, perceivable peaks and valleys in our collective happiness, and I think we may be facing the latter at the moment. If you’ve never considered yourself to be management material when it comes to your own thoughts, well, congratulations, you’ve just been promoted. If you have, please don’t cash in on your vacation time now. Time to get to work.